This article was written for SecEd magazine and first published in June 2016. This is the second of a four-part article on educated risks in the classroom. You can read the original version on the SecEd website here. You can read the first part here.
You can read more of my monthly columns for SecEd here.
At its beating heart the excellent school is a place where people care more than others think is wise, risk more than others think is safe, dream more than others think is practical, and expect more than others think is possible.
– Roy Blatchford
In part one of this series, I explained that in helping my college to achieve a greater level of consistency in the quality of the teaching, learning and assessment it provided to its students – and therefore improve its Ofsted grade from “requires improvement” to “good with outstanding features” – I wrestled with two apparently contradictory beliefs.
On the one hand, I believed that teachers were professionals and should be afforded autonomy in the classroom. On the other hand, I believed that, in order to raise students’ aspirations and improve outcomes, sometimes, senior leaders needed to balance their defence of teacher autonomy with their need to achieve school-wide consistency.
Sometimes, leaders needed to insist upon every teacher following a set of common working practices so that they could be sure every student was in receipt of the same high standards of teaching.
I went on to explain that I had reconciled those beliefs by realising that restricting teacher autonomy had less to do with trust and more to do with context: the journey to “good” is about ensuring consistency and compliance.
A school which is moving towards “outstanding”, meanwhile, can loosen the constraints and give high-performing teachers more freedom in order to encourage them to take risks and try new things in the classroom. But even these high-performing teachers in high-performing schools must recognise the difference between being autonomous and being a professional.
We may loosen the constraints on autonomy but only in the sense of allowing and encouraging greater levels of collective autonomy (teachers working together to improve their practice by taking risks), as opposed to individual autonomy (teachers working in a purely idiosyncratic way) because, even when a school is good or outstanding, standard professional practice provides the scaffolding that is required for the exercise of truly professional rather than idiosyncratic judgement.
In other words, although we should not eradicate individuality, we should eliminate individualism – habitual or enforced patterns of working alone. Eliminating individualism should not be about making everyone the same and plunging them into groupthink, it should be about achieving collective responsibility.
Being a professional is about what you do and how you behave. In their book, Professional Capital, Professors Andy Hargreaves and Michael Fullen say that being professional is about “being impartial and upholding high standards of conduct and performance – being professional is about quality and character”.
Being a professional, they say, has more to do with how other people regard you, and how this affects the regard you have for yourself. Moreover, being a professional means having collective – rather than individual – autonomy. They refer to members of the teaching profession – and indeed any profession – as having “collective autonomy” over their actions as opposed to individual autonomy. In other words, teachers – like doctors and lawyers – need to work within set systems and structures and follow a consistent approach to their teaching practice, rather than work in isolation and have complete autonomy over what they do and how they do it.
In the last article, our starting point was the notion that schools need to tighten up to be “good” and loosen to be “outstanding”. We have discussed that to lose one’s autonomy, to tighten up, does not equate to losing one’s professionalism, because to be a professional is to assume collective rather than individual autonomy. It follows, therefore, that all schools, irrespective of where they are on the journey towards excellence, need to limit individual autonomy – they need to lead people out of their silos and encourage them to work in a collaborative rather than idiosyncratic way. Let’s explore what this means in practice and why it is important…
Classic definitions of what constitutes a profession usually point to shared standards of practice, as well as shared specialised knowledge, expertise, and professional language.
Definitions of professionalism also refer to an autonomy to make informed discretionary judgements, working together with other professionals to solve complex cases. Great organisations give their staff freedom and responsibility within a framework.
In his book, Good to Great, Jim Collins expounds the importance of having a set of consistent systems and structures which dictate what staff can and cannot do and which governs how they should and should not operate. He uses the analogy of an airline pilot.
A pilot, he says, operates within a very strict system and does not have the freedom to go outside of that system. Yet at the same time, the crucial decisions – whether to take off, whether to land, whether to abort, whether to land elsewhere – rest with the pilot. Collins says that great organisations have a culture of discipline which involves a duality. On the one hand, it requires people to adhere to a consistent system; yet, on the other hand, it gives people freedom and responsibility within the framework of that system.
School improvement is about getting everyone on the same page. In Leverage Leadership, Paul Bambrick-Santoya talks about the challenge of building a rich and supportive staff culture, something which is “one of the critical components to (a school’s) success”.
He refers to Brian Sims, director of high schools for the Academy for Urban School Leadership, who transformed 14 of Chicago’s least successful district schools into “solid community bedrocks”. In so doing, Sims’s first job was to get everyone “on the same page”.
In other words, he made sure all his teachers knew the “school’s core mission … and (were) unified in putting it into practice”. He explains: “What most undermines failing schools is that everyone on the staff is doing his or her own thing … turning a failing school around demands a culture where everyone is on the same page, supports the school’s mission, and accepts what is needed to get back on track.”
Sims says that “if you don’t build a strong expectation and shared culture early in the turnaround, it’s extremely difficult to build it later”. Being a professional, then, means working within the scaffold of standard practice, assuming collective rather than individual autonomy; being a member of a profession rather than being idiosyncratic.
In his book Deliverology 101, Sir Michael Barber calls these shared standards of practice “routines” and he argues that routines are the engine of delivery. Routines, Barber says, “follow the clock, with no excuses for delay”. He continues: “They can come in many forms, depending on information, frequency, audience, and format. But, the purpose of each is the same: to create a sense of urgency, to sustain focus and momentum, and to track progress. One of the main benefits of routines is their ability to focus the delivery effort despite the multitude of distractions that will plague any system. Routines play a large part in overcoming barriers by forcing the system to regularly check its progress on a consistent set of priorities.”
In other words, great schools excel because they work in a consistent manner. They have strong values and high expectations. Their achievements do not happen by chance but through highly reflective, carefully planned strategies. There is a high degree of internal consistency. Leadership is well distributed and ambitious to move the school forward.
What needs to emerge, then, is the “standard operation”, a phrase Roy Blatchford borrows from the medical profession: “As a patient entering an established hospital for an appendectomy, a hip replacement, or a kidney transplant – operations of increasing complexity – wherever in the world we are, doctors will swing into action with the standard operation.
“Barring complications and assuming competent physicians, the patient will leave hospital with a body refreshed.”
Blatchford goes on to say that schools are a people business: “The inner belief and commitment to realising excellence by those who lead schools is the starting point. At its beating heart the excellent school is a place where people care more than others think is wise, risk more than others think is safe, dream more than others think is practical, and expect more than others think is possible.”
The particular skills and knowledge required of teachers, therefore, must be non-negotiable and so too must the “attitudes, dispositions and high service standards”.
Bambrick-Santoya, in Leverage Leadership, talks about the importance of getting to “teamlyness”. To boost achievement, schools need to craft the right staff culture which is one of coherence. And this leads me on to the importance of collaboration.
Throughout this article, I’ve referred to systems of collaboration as well as compliance and talked about the importance of collective rather than individual autonomy. Let’s now consider what form such collaboration might take in practice and what it might mean to have collective – not individual – autonomy.
At the heart of any true profession are expectations and frameworks that are challenging and open enough for teachers to be able to innovate and inquire into their practice together. Mindfulness must be cultivated and the norms and conditions of work must deliberately foster it.
Practice, especially collective reflective practice, is integral to what Hargreaves and Fullen call “decisional capital” and, by that token, to professional capital as a whole. Like medicine, teaching is an imperfect science, and it requires thinking professionals working together to maximise its effectiveness.
In part three in this series we will explore the importance of taking risks in the classroom and examine the very purpose of education.